Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Dragon of Dread Peak (Part 2)


Editor’s Note: Instead of two original fantasy short stories this month, we have for you a single fantasy novella (presented in two parts) by Jeremiah Tolbert, which is about twice the length of a regular Lightspeed story. So, although you are getting three original stories instead of four this month, you’re still getting about the same amount of fiction. We hope you enjoy this minor deviation from our usual offerings, and rest assured we will return to our regularly scheduled programming next month. You can read part 1 here. It’s also a sequel to Jeremiah’s story “The Cavern of the Screaming Eye,” which you can read in our October 2016 issue, or on our website at lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/cavern-screaming-eye. —eds.


Back in originspace, Basher sobbed in Doom Maiden’s arms. Sparks stared at the ground. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I wanted to punch something. Mostly I wanted to punch myself. Or maybe Domino. If only he had listened to me! Why did I ever think I could be a leader? Not even my best friend listened to me when it counted. How could I have been so stupid? How could he?

“We’ll get him back,” Basher said. She was frantic. “He’s still alive. Right, Sparks? He’s still alive.”

Sparks nodded. “For now. For days, weeks, months. Who knows. Karnifex will toy with him. Until he gets bored. Then he’ll . . .” He’d do what dragons did. We all knew it. She didn’t have to say it.

“He didn’t stick to the plan,” Sparks said, tone a little sad. “It would have worked if he hadn’t gotten greedy. Karnifex’s most prized possessions are his prisoners.”

Basher shook harder, and Doom Maiden glared at Sparks. She seemed to shrivel up. I felt guilty for the pleasure it gave me to see her lose some of her confidence. To see someone else feel a little like I did.

“Sparks,” Doom Maiden warned. “Now is not the time.”

“Bloodaxe tried to tell me that we were in over our heads,” I said. “I wouldn’t listen. I let our success go to my head like a complete fucking idiot.” I punched a nearby tree. My knuckles blossomed in pain, and I felt blood drip between my fingers. It felt like punishment well deserved, or at least the start of one.

“You hear the stories, but nothing prepares you for what dragons really are,” Basher said. “All that power . . .”

She was right; I understood now how Sparks’s people could come to revere them like gods. Karnifex, if he had wanted, could have killed us all as easy as breathing. That he didn’t—despite our deception—was somehow even more painful than if he had; now I had to live with the loss of my best friend.

“Nobody could ever defeat him; there aren’t weapons powerful enough,” I mumbled. “Not even the best crawlers of all time could kill him.”

“You need to pull it together, Ivan—” Doom Maiden warned. I wouldn’t listen. I needed to get as far away from my shame as I could. I walked, not really paying attention to where I was going. I ignored their calls and protests as they faded behind me.

By the time I began to feel calm, I had walked all the way home. The sun was rising; Josef, our block’s lamplighter, tipped his cap as I passed. It wasn’t a prestigious job, but I was starting to think that maybe I should find work doing something like that. It was clear that I didn’t have what it took to make it in Dungeonspace. I never did; Rash had always been right about that.

Before I even reached I front door, I could smell the tangy aroma of Mom’s famous breakfast scramble. My stomach did flip-flops of excitement. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten something.

“Ivan?” she called from the kitchenette.

It was then that I realized I hadn’t changed into my fake uniform. I was still wearing my crawler gear, which still reeked of the dragon’s lair. And I could hear mom’s footsteps coming toward the living room. I froze.

She rounded the corner. She stared silently. I could see tear stains on her cheeks. It hadn’t even occurred to me that she would worry about me not coming home. “Oh, Ivan.” she said, then turned and walked back into the kitchen. “Well. At least you’re not dead.”

“Mom!”

“I don’t even want to hear it.”

“Mom.” I stepped into the kitchen. She turned off the burner and stared at her frying pan. For a minute, the sizzle of vegetables and roc-eggs was the only sound.

“How long?” she asked quietly.

“Mom, it’s not—”

She grabbed a spatula and flung it into the sink with a loud clang. “How. Long.”

“A couple of months,” I admitted. “Not very long.”

“Oh good,” she said, tone sarcastic. “My only living son has been lying to me for two months. That’s all. It’s not like it’s been years. That’d really be godsdamned awful.”

“I’m sorry—”

“You promised. When Jonah died, you swore that you would never get involved in d-space. You can’t ‘sorry’ your way out of this.” She spun and looked me in the eye again. Her nostrils flared. I’d never seen her so angry. An image of enraged Karnifex flashed in my mind, and I took a step back.

“You don’t have to worry. I’m done.” The tears came then, and I couldn’t do hold back any longer. I broke down and began to sob. “I screwed up big time and I don’t think I can fix it!”

Her expression softened, and she placed a calloused hand on my arm. She guided me to the tiny table in the corner where we had once eaten meals together as a whole family, now just two of us remaining.

“Tell me what happened, Ivan.”

I started with the recent, horrifying, soul-crushing events and worked my way backwards, all the way to the Cavern and the beginning—meeting Jimmy, my only real friend in the entire damned city, lost now because I couldn’t hold our team together. It rushed out in a torrent of words, and she listened quietly, interrupting only to ask a clarifying question now and then.

As I spoke, I felt a weight from my chest begin to lift a little. I hadn’t realized how much it had been hurting me to lie to her for so long. I knew, deep down, that my mother only wanted me to be happy and safe, even when sometimes her decisions or rules seemed to run contrary to that. The guilt of how I had hurt her . . . I knew it’d last a long time. But at least the shame of the lie I could let go of now.

Even so—I still couldn’t tell her the whole truth. I left out the connections to the Black Hole, and the escapee. Not really lying, I told myself.

“Dungeonspace is nothing but death and sorrow,” Mom said once I was finished. “It’s such an adventure when you’re fifteen, but by the time you’re twenty and the anomalies stop working? You’re relieved. You’re happy that the doors are closing to you and that you can never go back. Some philosopher once said, ‘for there to be adventure, there must also be risk.’ Over time, all that risk leads to tragedy and heartbreak.”

“You sound like you’re talking from experience . . .”

She laughed. “Every generation thinks they’re the first delvers, or crawlers, whatever you call yourselves now. We called ourselves explorers in my day. It was all so new, and there was so much to be found. Dungeonspace is where I met your father . . . seems like a few centuries ago and also just like yesterday at the same time.” She scowled, and stared at nothing. “I know dungeonspace. It took your father from me, even after I thought we were safe. It took your brother. I don’t think I could go on with any of this if it takes you from me too.” She wiped her nose with a dishtowel.

I stood there dumbfounded for several moments. I had to say something, but I couldn’t believe she’d been a crawler and never told us. Finally, I worked up the nerve to speak: “Mom, I know I’m risking a lot. Not just for myself, but for you too. I’ve tried to be careful. I never should have let them put me in charge. They all think I know what I’m doing because Jonah was my brother. Like somehow I have a natural talent for this. But I don’t. I’ll never be as good as he was.”

Mom scowled. “Ivan Kuzmich, you’re smarter than your brother and twice as kind,” she said. “Smarts and kindness can go a long way in dungeonspace. But it’s mostly the smarts you need.”

“I’m done,” I said. I swore it, like an oath. “I’m never going back. I’ve lost my best friend. I can’t risk anything else.”

She sighed. “I really wish I believed that.”

“I do—”

She took me by the shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “You don’t,” she said flatly. “Let’s stop lying right now.”

I didn’t want her to be right, but damn—she knew me better than anyone. “If there’s any chance I can save Jimmy, I have to do it. But it’s Karnifex. What could we possibly do against the most powerful dragon in the known world fragments?”

“Attacking that monster would be suicide even if you had an army. They tried that once, you know, in your grandfather’s day . . . What was it you said earlier, about dragons and what they hate even more than people?” she mused.

I tried to remember. “Sparks said that the only thing a dragon hates more than people—” It struck me like a bolt of lightning. “—are other dragons. Oh wow. I know what we have to do.”

“What?”

I ran to Jonah’s room. Mom hadn’t finished boxing up his old ’zines. I tore through them, looking for one in particular I had remembered him reading. The special dragon issue of Frobisher’s Guide.

I rolled it up and shoved it in my back pocket, gave Mom a kiss on the cheek, and ran for the door. “Can you send a tube-message into school excusing me today?”

“What are you going to do?” Mom called out.

“We’re going to fight dragon with dragon.”

• • • •

I’d never been to Basher’s house, but I knew she attended Braxis East High—my school’s supposed cross-town rival—and that was easy to reach by bus and streetcar. I hopped off a few minutes before the first bell and lingered outside the campus, hoping that I would see her somewhere in the crowd of arriving students. Their school building looked like our own—a long, narrow building made of brick and glass, three stories tall. If you’d walked by in a hurry, you might not have noticed the graffiti or the broken windows here and there that had been boarded over.

Some of the students gave me hard stares, and one troller in fashionably tattered d-space wear slammed against my shoulder as he passed.

“Hey, do you know Cindy—I mean, Basher?”

He ignored me and continued walking.

Eventually, the crowds parted and a pale, weary-looking Basher stopped a few feet away from me. She looked me over, as if assessing me for injuries, or perhaps calculating the best place to inflict one.

“What are you even doing here, Ivan?”

“I’ve got a plan.” I put all the confidence I could muster into those four words. I even convinced myself. They sounded almost good.

“To save Dom?”

“To defeat Karnifex, save Dom, and save everybody.”

Her shoulders slumped and seemed to shrink half a meter. “I’m so tired of plans.”

Not the reaction I’d been hoping for, but . . . “You’re not walking away.”

“I didn’t want to go to class right now anyway.”

“Walk with me to get something to eat and I’ll explain?”

“I’ll listen, but no promises.”

I nodded. “Fair enough.”

• • • •

She led me to a diner a few blocks away. I was surprised at how many people our age were seated in booths or clustered around tables. They had to be cutting class, or maybe they’d dropped out entirely for the dungeonspace life—something I had heard was more common in this neighborhood, but heavily frowned upon in the West Barrio. Most wore d-space gear out in the open. There were a lot more crawlers in the East Barrio, clearly. A tall, smiling woman with a prosthetic leg just visible beneath her apron asked me if I wanted the special.

“What’s that?”

“Cockatrice and waffles.”

I blinked. “Are those good together?”

Cindy put her large hand on my shoulders and guided me to a corner table. “That sounds great, Donna. Two specials.”

“Sure thing, hon.”

At the table, I dug through my bag for the dragon special issue of Frobisher’s Guide from a few years back. I had dog-eared several profiles on the bus ride.

“We’re going to need Sparks again; the plan hinges on convincing a dragon to side with us against Karnifex. With an equally aggressive dragon on our team fighting Karnifex, we would have the cover we need to get everyone out alive.”

“I should have asked before we walked all the way over here and ordered.” She began to stand.

“Come on, Basher. It could work. Like Sparks said, the only thing dragons hate more than people are other dragons. We play them against each other.”

Basher eased slowly back into her seat. “You’ve gone insane. First—how are we going to convince a dragon to join up with us? Our last attempt at parlaying with a dragon didn’t go so well.”

“We were doing fine until Dom got greedy. Sparks can do the talking again.” As I spoke, I realized I wasn’t just trying to convince her of my idea—I was also still trying to convince myself. But I didn’t want her to see that, so I kept myself sounding puffed up and sure.

“Fine. Much bigger problem, though: How do we get a dragon out of one dungeon and into another? There’s no way to move things that aren’t artifacts. What you’re talking about is . . . what, an incursion? Nobody knows how they happen, let alone how to make one happen.”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.

“Yeah, okay. About that . . .”

• • • •

I told her about the voice in the dark, The Thing Between.

It had first spoken to me in the Cavern of the Screaming Eye when I had been alone exploring its twisting passages. It had known things about my brother, claimed to have spoken to him many times. Our first encounter had been brief, and I had hoped a one-time thing, just a fluke that would never come up. That was, until we spoke again.

On our most recent failed run at defeating the Tower of the Repeating Phantasm, I’d fallen into a pitfall trap and was stuck there for almost an hour while the others had tried to figure out how to open the trap door and get a rope down to me. There in the pitch-black, the voice found me again.

“Quite a predicament you have made for yourself today, young Flip,” the voice said. It seemed to come from the darkness itself. It was both a whisper and a shout within the same sounds, almost like many voices speaking fractions of a second apart. “It is good to speak to you once more.”

“How can you be here?” I asked. “We defeated the Cavern.” Creatures and objects sometimes echoed and repeated between anomalies, but they didn’t have continuity. Yet the voice remembered our last conversation and picked up where we had left off. It wasn’t an echo—it was the original, somehow persisting beyond the closing of the Cavern.

“You assume that I made my home within that paltry space?” It chuckled, and I felt a chill to match its cold tone. “I dwell in the spaces between and beyond.”

“You live in originspace? In Braxis City, or another pocket?”

Between.”

“In the Nothing?”

“If you wish.”

I lost my temper then, fed up with its ambiguity and riddles. “If you won’t talk straight, then go bother some other crawler smart enough to not fall in a pit.”

“I will endeavor to speak more plainly. How have you fared in your ventures since we last spoke?”

“Not great, as you can see for yourself.”

“Hmm. Yes, you do not yet understand your potential. So much you have to learn. Perhaps you have the time. Perhaps you don’t—now, I do not aim to speak with obfuscation, but my assessment is unsure. It will be up to you.”

“It’s up to me if I can be a great crawler?” I rolled my eyes. “Thanks for that stunning bit of wisdom.”

“Like your brother, you could be so much more than that, Ivan.” There was a scraping sound above. A sudden shaft of light nearly blinded me.

“There you are!” Dom had said. “I was worried you’d gotten spiked to death.” A knotted silk rope descended. I no longer felt The Thing Between’s presence. It had fled, as it always did whenever others were near.

• • • •

“Whatever it is, I think I can ask it to help us make a bridge for a dragon from one dungeon to another,” I said.

“First archmages, then dragons, and now literal, godsdamned demons? Maybe we could find a lich to bring in on this plan too?” Basher asked sarcastically. “I can’t believe you haven’t told any of us about this before now!” She shook her head. “Nobody on this team wants to tell anybody anything. It’s no wonder we can’t bring it together.”

“We don’t know it’s a demon. I don’t know what it is, but I—I didn’t want to worry you guys. The voice is harmless. It’s kinda mean-spirited and mischievous, but it seems to want me to become somebody.” I paused. “I liked the idea I could do that,” I said, more softly.

Basher reached across the table and took my hand. “Ivan, you are somebody. You don’t have to live up to the creepy stalker-voice’s expectations or anybody else’s. Just your own.”

“I was afraid you would think I was dangerous if I told you, and you wouldn’t want to crawl with me anymore,” I said. “I need this group to work. I’m not a troller like you; nobody is going to invite me to their party if this one doesn’t work out. And I know you need to start earning to pay for your treatments.”

She looked down, seeming to only just realize we were still holding hands. She didn’t take her hand back at first—she squeezed gently, then let go. “I’m not going anywhere. I need to land a payday, but I want to do it with you two dorks, not a bunch of cut-throat mercenaries that only see me as a meat-shield.”

I laughed. “You’re more than that to me.” I added hastily, “I mean, to all of us. Domino and Doom Maiden, too.” I felt guilty. I wanted to take back the last part, but I couldn’t. It was already in the air.

Our plates arrived, and we dug in. The combination of the fluffy, sweet waffles with the salty, battered cockatrice was amazing. I kept up with my troller friend bite for bite, which was no small accomplishment.

“Okay,” she said between bites. “Let’s say it might work, and it’s worth a try. What do we do next?”

“You go find Sparks and get her in on this. Doom Maiden too, if she’s not too pissed at me.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to find The Thing Between and convince it to help us transport a dragon across dungeonspace. You’re right; it might not even be possible, but I have to try.”

“I was gonna complain that you gave me the hard parts, but—never mind.”

“This leader stuff is totally bogus. You sure you don’t want to take over?”

“You’re always questioning yourself,” Basher said. “What’s it going to take for you to stop doing that? This team needs a leader who believes in himself as much as his team does.”

“It’s just . . . I don’t want to make a bad call. It’s a lot of responsibility, this leadership shit. I’ll try to be better. But do me a favor, and if you think I’m making a bad call: Tell me. Please?”

She nodded. “Of course. We trust you, but it’s not a blind faith kind of thing.”

“Are you sure you don’t want this job?”

“Nah, I’ll wait until a dragon eats you and then I’ll lead us to certain victory. My legacy will look so good after yours.”

“Okay, okay . . .”

“You won’t believe how good my legacy’s gonna be. Statues of me on every street corner . . . I’ll make sure they mention you in my epic song, at least for a stanza or two.”

She was still going on like that as I headed for the door.

“See you later, Ego-in-Waiting.”

“Don’t get eaten by demons, Reluctant-but-Determined-Leader.”

• • • •

The nearest anomaly, just a couple of blocks down the street from the diner, turned out to be the Forest of Endless Night, which was perfect for my needs. Nobody runs the Forest to actually close it—on orders from MAC. The Forest is connected to another originspace pocket containing a city named Shijie. MAC ran regular draftee-guarded caravans for trade with them through the Forest, and Shijie did the same. That was one downside of being a crawler—once you were an officially recognized operator on the scene, the city could draft you into doing work for the city’s survival. My brother had managed to avoid it by working for a MAC-sponsored team, but a lot of other crawlers spent weeks guarding wagons across dangerous d-space terrain. The make-up homework after a long haul was pretty killer.

I popped through the anomaly and appeared at the foot of an oak tree as tall and wide as an office building. The canopy above was thick enough to block out the sky, although the light filtered through the leaves enough that it wasn’t total darkness. I wondered if it was dark enough here to bring out the Thing. Before, it had always been pitch black.

“Hello?” I called out. “Mister Voice?” I waited a minute, but nobody answered. What had I been thinking about when the voice had spoken to me before? Was there some trick to summoning it? I closed my eyes and calmed my thoughts. I felt something stretch in the back of my mind, reach outside my body, this space, and into somewhere infinite and vast. My pulse raced.

“Young Ivan . . . most impressive,” The Thing Between said. “You have advanced in your talents.”

“I have no idea what I just did,” I admitted.

“You took your first step toward becoming greater. I am so pleased. You have need of my companionship?”

“Er, something like that. I don’t have a lot of time. You’re able to travel between the dungeonspace anomalies, right?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“My friend Domino’s being held captive by a dragon. The only thing that I think can take on that dragon is another dragon. I have to figure out how to get one there. There’s got to be some way.” I paused. “Can you help?”

“Aid you to build a bridge from the domain of one dragon to another? Wyrms that have battled one another for eons? Creatures of immense power that destroy anything that threatens their domains?”

“. . . yes?”

“No.” The voice was firm. “I will not help you with this.”

I let out a long and frustrated howl, and for a moment, it felt good. “Why the hell not? You always want to talk, but you never actually say anything. You keep finding me. I bet you don’t have anyone else to talk to. Must get lonely out in the Nothing. If you don’t help me with this, I’ll never speak to you again! Because you know what? I’m done with dungeonspace. I’ll never come back, I’ll never run again, if we can’t save Dom. He was the whole reason I even got involved in this.”

There was a long pause, and I wondered if the Thing had departed.

“I cannot help you directly. I cannot draw attention to myself—such a bending of the rules would attract . . . entities . . . that neither myself nor you would wish to encounter. You, however, could . . . perhaps not a direct point-to-point connection, but I believe . . . yes. You could use your world as the bridge—the coordinates are known. You need merely to alter the paths to your world to allow the bi-causal transference.”

I felt like I’d only understood a handful of those words, but there was hope in them. “I can do that?”

“This is the smallest fraction of the potential we have spoken of. The talent resides in your bloodline. Your brother. A lineage stretching back to the beginning, yes . . .” Like before, the voice’s attention seemed to be wandering away.

“Can you show me how?” I asked, tone sharp. “Stay with me here for a little longer, please!”

“You can only learn through trying to exert your will in such matters. It cannot be taught, but great need has always been a catalyst for great leaps in ability. There’s . . . some . . . probability you will succeed. To say more would endanger your chances. Good luck.”

The Thing Between’s presence left me, and I was alone in a giant forest again, burdened now with ideas that frightened me.

I had an ability to alter the anomalies? Some kind of unknown d-space talent? And my brother did too?

Rash had definitely never talked about being able to do anything like that, and I’d certainly never heard of such a thing. Given that, it seemed extremely unlikely that there would be any information available to help me, no mentor to walk me through this. As the Thing had said, I would have to learn on my own, and quickly.

The whole conversation felt like three steps forward, and two giant leaps backward. But the voice had said there was a chance. That would have to be enough for now.

If there was any chance at all of saving Dom, I had to take it.

• • • •

When I walked into One-Arm’s Gym, Basher and Sparks were huddled together giggling. Was I even in the right place? Had I somehow ended up in a mirror universe where all personal relationships were upside-down?

“Flip! Glad you could join us,” Sparks said merrily. “Basher’s got me up to speed on your wyvernshit crazy plan. I’m all in, buddy.”

“Really? I kind of thought making dragons fight would be against your beliefs.”

“What’s the worst that could happen? We go have a talk with Auntie Maelstrom and maybe she eats you two, but leaves me alive. Best-case scenario, you can actually do what you say you can do, and we get to see something I’ve been dreaming about seeing my entire life. Two dragons enter; one dragon leaves! A battle royale. It will be so. Freaking. Epic.”

“Maelstrom?” It wasn’t one of the dragons I had flagged in the issue of Frobisher’s. But I recalled the name; she dwelled within the Fortress of the Frozen Wastes. Maelstrom was smaller than Karnifex and less hostile to humans; rumor had it she’d even helped some out-of-their-league crawlers safely to the exit on abandoned attempts to solve the Fortress. That generosity had led to a scene-wide ban on running that anomaly—because completing the Fortress would have made Maelstrom cease to exist. A bad way of returning the favor.

“It’s actually pretty genius,” Basher said. “We free Maelstrom to deal with Karnifex. She’ll take over his hoard and we can mop up the Fortress before anybody knows she’s gone. It’ll be easy mode for the full Monte Haul!”

“And best of all, it’s well known amongst dragon-worshipping circles that Maelstrom hates Karnifex. The have some kind of history, pre-Catacylsm. Ex-lovers, I bet. She really hates his scaly hide.”

“There’s one non-negotiable element, though, to my participation. I’m taking a double-cut on whatever we score in Maelstrom’s lair,” Sparks said brightly. “A girl has needs. Swimming-pool-full-of-gold-coins needs.”

“I said it was okay,” Basher said. “If we bring in a whole hoard of treasure, she’ll have earned it.”

“Why are you two suddenly so cozy?” I asked. I felt a little outnumbered without Dom.

Basher smiled. “We had a good chat.”

“About what?”

“Things,” Sparks said cagily.

“Sparks likes Dom!” Basher blurted.

“Basher!” Sparks was blushing. “Kinda. Maybe! Look, I was gonna ask him out after all this was over, and then he had to go and get himself frozen. I figure I get another chance if we do this. He’s an idiot, but a cute idiot.”

That’s why you’re going to help us?”

Basher shrugged. “Just go with it. She’s in. I’m in. Doom Maiden said no way, but it’s probably good that she isn’t here to poop all over your plan. How did things go with the spooky voice?”

“Oh, you know. Told me I have superpowers. Apparently, people in my family kind of, uh, have the ability to create incursions.”

Basher’s face turned pale. “You what?”

“The voice said it couldn’t help me create a bridge, but that I could move a dragon from its dungeonspace into originspace, and then through a second anomaly. I could do that on my own.”

“Whoa!” Sparks jumped up and began to pace. “You can do that? For real?”

“No idea, but I’m going to try. The voice hasn’t lied or been wrong before. And . . . I was able to summon the voice, somehow. I pulled it to me. Have either of you ever heard of a d-space talent like that?” I asked. Sparks and Basher shook their heads.

“I guess you’re not just plain Ivan anymore,” Basher said. She smiled softly, and nudged me in the ribs. If I could do this, I was anything but plain.

“Guess we’ll find out,” Sparks said. “Now let’s go convince a dragon to punch the shit out of another dragon!”

The time for agonizing over plans was over, and soon MAC would transfer the escapee into a hole so deep we’d never reach them.

“Let’s grab our gear and go.” I paused. “Hey. If I give either of you an order . . . will you listen to it? Please? I can’t have a repeat of last time. If I’m going to be a leader, I need you to follow. Um, in d-space.”

“You’re the boss,” Sparks said.

Basher was grinning, like I’d finally gotten the balls to say something that should have been said weeks ago. She gave me a quick nod.

“Okay, let’s go sweet talk a dragon.”

• • • •

The Fortress anomaly was in a meat locker warehouse in the South Barrio. The building had once stored dry goods, but the anomaly put off sub-zero temperatures and the owner had made lemonade from sub-zero lemons. She was going to be royally pissed after we closed the place, probably. Nobody wants to lose free air conditioning.

Approaching the anomaly made my teeth chatter. Even Basher’s teeth were chattering. I realized a fatal flaw in my new “skip planning” spontaneity, which was we hadn’t outfitted ourselves for the cold weather.

I never really wanted to know what it would feel like to spend eternity as an ice cube, but thanks to transport through the anomaly, now I do. It was somehow a little warmer on other side, and we came through straight into a raging blizzard.

Sparks fumbled against the raging wind with her tome of formulas and shouted words I couldn’t make out. A pocket of warm, calm air formed around us, cutting the chill dramatically. As the numbness ebbed from my fingers and toes, I wondered if Sparks would consider becoming a permanent member of the team; her magic was ridiculously useful. She could make a good teammate, even if she did have some weird ideas about dragons.

“So how do we find Maelstrom?” Basher asked. We peered out into the flurry of snow. I had no idea which direction was which, and I was afraid to get out of sight of the anomaly exit.

“Maelstrom has already found you, little ape,” said an icy, feminine voice in the white. Where Karnfiex’s voice registered in your guts, Maelstrom’s voice echoed inside your head, tone even and soft-spoken. Drifts around us shuddered, and the enormous wings of a wyrm stretched up into the sky, casting even more snow and ice upon us—which melted quickly thanks to Sparks’s spell. In the shadow of the dragon, I could finally see more than a few meters away.

Maelstrom was large, but not even half the size of Karnifex. I worried we had chosen poorly—could this one stand up against him? The impact of seeing her was no less terrifying, however. After a certain point, “big enough to eat you in one single bite” can’t get much scarier.

Sparks squealed. “Ahem—oh, great Maelstrom—” She started winding up to deliver some grand speech.

“Cut the crap.” The dragon sat, tail coiled around her feet. Her wings bent and continued to shelter us from the wind, but I couldn’t help notice she also blocked our escape route. “What do you want? You clearly haven’t come to battle.”

Sparks grinned. “Aren’t you bored of living in this icy wasteland? Wouldn’t you rather go some place warm? Some place full of great treasures gathered over centuries?”

The dragon’s left eyebrow escalated a foot. “Perhaps . . . go on.”

“We’re here to offer you a deal. We have the means at our disposal to transport you to the lair of another dragon, one with an enormous hoard you can make your own. The other holds our friends captive. All we ask in return is that we free them, and take a single item from its hoard.”

The dragon chuckled. “You suggest that I take the risk of battling another of my kind for the possibility of a larger hoard in warmer climes? No. I am comfortable enough here.”

I sighed. “Well, it was worth a shot. Let’s head home.”

Sparks rolled her eyes at me.

“What if I told you the dragon was Karnifex?”

Maelstrom huffed frigid air that Sparks spell couldn’t quite warm. I shivered. “That blowhard still lives? Impossible.”

“He lives, and we have a route to him. You can extract your revenge or whatever. He won’t be expecting you, right?”

“No . . . the Sundering has made sure—”

“Exactly. A perfect surprise attack. You can take him—not that I think you’d need a surprise attack to take him anyway. He is so ancient, after all, and you still have the shine of youth upon your beautiful scales! What do you say?”

The dragon stared at us, unblinking, seeming to weigh our offer. “I do grow weary of all this snow . . . if you can do this, truly, then I will agree to your terms . . . for the moment.”

Sparks turned to me with a broad grin.

“I’m sorry I ever doubted you,” I said with a grin of my own.

• • • •

Now all I had to do was figure out how to get the dragon from here to there.

Something that, as far as I knew, had never been done before. But that was dungeonspace life sometimes. You had to do the impossible three times in an evening and still make it home before curfew.

On this side, the anomaly appeared as a small archway made of turquoise ice. It was certainly not large enough for Maelstrom to pass through.

I walked around it in a wide circle. “Okay,” I muttered to myself. “I gotta change this. Make it larger, and . . . open the door fully somehow.”

As I stared at the arch, I felt a twinge again in the rear of my mind. I closed my eyes to focus on the sensation. It felt almost like how an arm feels after it’s fallen asleep and has begun to wake up. Numb, tingling. The sensation unfolded, and I reached out with it.

“Holy Drake,” Sparks hissed. A yellow light shone brightly enough that I could see it through my eyelids. I tugged with my ethereal limb, stretching the fabric of the anomaly, but somehow aware that if I moved too quickly, something might tear. I worked slowly, carefully, easing it wider.

When I opened my eyes, the light had faded, and the arch was now tall enough for the dragon to step through.

Basher and Sparks stared at me, jaws agape. Startled, but also a little scared? I felt that too. What had I just done? What did it mean for my future? My mind raced to worry about what all this meant, but I pushed it aside; that could come later.

“Did you . . . work some kind of formula?” Sparks asked. “You kind of looked like you were working magic.”

“Maybe. I have no idea.”

“Enough prattle; let’s play,” Maelstrom said, and stepped through the arch.

“I really hope we didn’t just make a really big mistake,” I said, and hurried to follow the dragon.

• • • •

When we came through, Maelstrom was busy devouring chimera shanks hanging from meat hooks inside the warehouse. “Delicious! What do you call this?”

“I’ll bring you some next time we come to visit, Auntie,” Sparks said. “Right now, we have to travel to Karnifex’s lair.”

“And quickly, before anyone sees us,” Basher said.

“Too late,” I said, pointing to the two warehouse workers running at full speed for the doors. “A MAC High Threat Response Team will be on its way any second now.”

“How are we going to get there without scaring half the city? The entrance is kilometers away,” Basher said. “We can’t just walk there.”

Sparks grinned. “Auntie Maelstrom, I’ll bring you even tastier meats next time if you do us this one really big favor . . .”

• • • •

“Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods,” I babbled, adding a fear of heights to my list of phobias that I’d developed in the past two months. I clung to Basher’s waist, and ahead of her, Sparks yipped and hollered with joy, hands gripped tightly on Malestrom’s scales. We sat between the dragon’s shoulders, which were taut with the effort of keeping us aloft. The city was a net of sparkling lights below, rushing past in a blur.

“Look on the winning side,” Basher said in my ear over the howl of the wind. “At least we didn’t have to fit a dragon on a municipal bus.”

“Yeah, but—oh gods, don’t let me fall,” I grasped Basher tighter as the dragon’s muscles rippled. Basher may have laughed; I couldn’t be sure. I was too busy hoping I wouldn’t pee my pants.

Maelstrom made a thankfully gentle landing in the spring grass a few feet away from the Dread Peak anomaly guard booth. The MAC agent inside fled into the night screaming like she’d witnessed a murder, or, well, murder incarnate.

“So, child,” the dragon said, eyeing me. “You’re the ape who opens gates?”

I glanced at Sparks nervously. She immediately understood my concern and promptly distracted the dragon with more platitudes and descriptions of Karnifex’s great hoard that would soon be hers. Maelstrom had an obvious weakness for flattery. Anything to keep the dragon from realizing that I might be more valuable than any of Karnifex’s loot. If I could create incursions, I could allow all sorts of d-space denizens into our reality. That would be bad. But if I could open new pathways to other pieces of originspace, it could change everything. The voice had hinted that this was only the beginning of my abilities. Who knew what else might I accomplish in time?

I went to work again widening the anomaly to allow the dragon’s passage. A wave of exhaustion hit me halfway through, and my knees buckled. Luckily, Basher was there to keep me upright. I felt calmer, somehow, when she touched me, and stronger.

“It’s done,” I said, breathing heavily. “I don’t think I’ll be able to do that again any time soon. I feel like I could nap for days.”

I waited for everyone else to pass through the anomaly. The girls went through arm in arm, still riding the high of convincing Maelstrom to help us. My excitement, however, was already fading to worry. I was afraid that I hadn’t enlarged the anomaly enough, but the dragon seemed to dwindle in size like it was vanishing into the far distance. I felt a vindictive hope that it stung for her as much as it did for me. Then I followed her through.

As I burned into cinder and traveled the space between, I had a flash of a vision. Something rising in the smoke and ashes from below—my nightmare again. I felt for the first time as if the presence below was aware of me, eyeing me. Oh gods, I had drawn the attention of it—

Then I was standing on the side of Mount Dread beside my friends. I gagged at the scent, as I had the first time, but like Sparks had said, you did get a little used to it. Maelstrom had taken flight and was circling in the air above, screeching a challenge. Karnifex perched on the lip of the volcano, slowly flapping his enormous wings. He already bore several savage wounds on his flank, and seemed weakened by the successful ambush that we’d orchestrated.

“HOW HAVE YOU TRAVERSED THE SUNDERING, YOU LEATHERY OLD BAT?” he roared. “HOW IS IT POSSIBLE?”

“The child-apes are clever creatures. Capable of so much more than pitiful offerings of meat and trinkets,” Maelstrom answered. “They’ve brought me to your doorstep, after all. Now I shall finally end you.”

“YOU’VE TRIED BEFORE AND FAILED,” Karnifex replied with a snicker. “YOU WON’T SUCCEED THIS TIME, EITHER, WHELP.”

“Yes, I am still young, but you are ever more decrepit,” Maelstrom said, and plunged from the sky in a blur. The two dragons collided with a thunderclap and a great gust of fetid air, and they tumbled into the smoke of the crater.

“Now’s our chance,” I shouted over the din. “Find Dom!”

Sparks remained stuck in place, staring up into the smoke. She trembled, and her eyes were moist. “That was every bit as badass as I always dreamed.” Basher had to physically drag her away from the vantage point. “Okay, okay! But come on, you have to admit, that was amazing!”

We rushed down through the cavern that fed into Karnifex’s sprawling lair. The space inside the greeting room seemed even more vast without the dragon’s bulk to partially fill it. We moved together, carefully keeping an eye open for more traps, but uncertain how much time we had. How long would a dragon battle last? Who knew? Nobody had ever seen dragons battle before. Today was turning out to be full of firsts.

Past the antechamber, we followed branching passages leading to the great wyrm’s treasure vaults, all neatly organized by types, shapes, and qualities. Karnifex was a fastidious sort of dragon, but I guess with eternity alone inside a volcano, he had plenty of time to think through his loot organizational system. We passed rooms full of polished furniture, stereotypical piles of gold jewelry and coin, and even one odd room full of shimmering metallic disks piled halfway to the ceiling. There was writing on some of them, old words that I only half-recognized. One said: “AOL” and “1000 hours free,” but I had no idea what any of that meant.

In the rear-most treasure chamber, we found the captives. A dozen figures, frozen like statues in various poses of terror or failed escape. There, Domino stood paralyzed in the middle, the Phylactery in one hand and his mask in the other. I couldn’t bear to look at the fear on his face. What if we couldn’t unfreeze him? I hadn’t given that problem much thought, but surely Braxis City’s finest could find a cure with some time.

“Hang on, dude. We’re going to get you home,” I whispered. A tear rolled down his cheek in answer. It was enough for me to know he was still alive, somehow, in this frozen state. I felt relief to know that much.

The cavern shuddered, and a few bits of rubble fell from the ceiling high above. Small, mostly harmless pieces—for now—but not a good omen.

“We have to move,” Basher said. “What now?”

“Sparks, do you have an antidote-formula to reverse the effects of Karnifex’s breath?”

“Um . . . I can take a shot at it. It’s not something I have prepared, so I’ll be working on the fly with raw calculations.”

“Do it!” A large chunk of stone fell from the ceiling and smashed into shards only a few feet away from one of the frozen crawlers. “That epic dragon brawl is going to bring the whole mountain down!”

Sparks flipped through a pocket-sized tome and began tracing her equations in the air and muttering to herself. Another loud boom echoed above. Everything around us shook.

After a moment, Sparks shook her head. “I’ve got nothing. With some time, I could figure it out, but we’re short on that, obvs.”

“Guess we’re doing this the hard way,” I said. I sized up Dom to figure out the best way to carry him.

“I can carry two at a time, maybe three if I can find a smaller kid,” Basher said. She brushed me aside and moved to heft Dom and another.

“Can you conjure up Elwood’s Floating Platform?” I asked Sparks. It was a pretty common formula, useful for moving around large heavy objects, but it required a lot of concentration to maintain.

“We’ll never get them all this way,” Sparks said, eying the trembling cavern ceiling.

“We have to try!”

“Yeah, okay, okay.” She went to work weaving the glowing green disc out of the ether. As it started to form and slowly grew, she seemed to shrink in energy and stature.

Basher carried Dom like he weighed nothing and balanced him on her right shoulder. She tucked a third of the frozen under her spare arm and began to jog toward the exit. I stared and marveled at the sight for a moment too long, and Sparks nudged me with a leer before returning her attention to the disc.

“Okay, let’s get another couple.”

Sparks and I worked to load a statuesque kid dual-wielding swords onto it. It wavered a bit, and Sparks looked paler still. “Let’s head for the exit,” I said. “Maybe we’ll have time for a return trip.” I wasn’t very hopeful, but I figured I should put on a show of it to keep up team morale.

The disk moved a little slower than Basher; she slowed to keep our pace. More bits of cavern were coming down around us, but miraculously, nobody was struck on the climb out. We unloaded beside the anomaly and turned back to descend into the mountain a second time. A hot blast of nauseating air knocked us off our feet as the two dragons, bodies entwined, rocketed into the sky from the crater.

Basher pointed. “Uh, Sparks?”

“Yeah?”

“That doesn’t look like fighting to me.”

“Huh?” Sparks turned, sheltered her eyes against the blood-red sun. “Oh. Oh, gross.”

The fight had morphed into something like acrobatic dance. The dragons spun, twisted, dove together, as a single mind. Their scales were tattered, wings ripped, but no longer were Maelstrom and Karnifex fighting to the death. Quite the opposite, in fact. A moment later, they broke apart and pinwheeled to landed side by side only a few dozen meters away. Karnifex nuzzled against the smaller Maelstrom’s cheeks. They hadn’t yet noticed us or Karnifex’s victims.

“We need to go back for the others,” I whispered.

Basher shook her head, and leaned in close. “Remember when you told me to tell you when you’re making a bad call? This is the time. We can’t save everybody. We. Have. To. Go.”

Before I could even argue, Maelstrom spotted us and cackled with draconic laughter. If you can live your life without ever hearing a dragon laugh like that, I recommend you do so. Some nights, I still wake up in a cold sweat remembering that sound, like broken mirrors grinding together with bone and flesh. “There they are. That’s the one I was telling you about. That weak little thing has the Gift, if you can believe it.”

“THAT ONE?” Karnifex scoffed. “PREPOSTEROUS.” He blinked. “THEY’RE STEALING MY FAVORED TRINKETS!” Karnifex roared. Post-coital bliss gone, he took to the air once more. The only thing in our favor was that he moved slower than before, tired by the exertion of battle and copulation.

“You ignoramus! The one ape is more valuable than all your other treasures piled together,” Maelstrom screeched, but she soon followed into the air.

As we took cover, the anomaly hummed. Bloodaxe and Doom Maiden assembled piece by piece into existence, both fully kitted for battle. Bloodaxe had his namesake dripping weapon in one hand and a polished steel shield in the other, while Doom Maiden had a recurved bow at hand.

“Oh, thank the gods!” I said. “We are so in over our heads.”

“We’ll distract the dragons,” Bloodaxe said. “You three save as many as you can.”

Doom Maiden drew and unleashed her bow; the arrow burst into a missile of light, flaring bright and hot as the sun. Bloodaxe roared, and charged in the direction of the circling dragons. As he ran, he grew taller, matching his height to Maelstrom’s through some ’fact he had that he’d never mentioned before. The now-giant troller and the dragon clashed and tumbled to the ground, sending dust and rubble into the air, distracting Karnifex. Doom Maiden continued to pepper Karnifex with light bolts. The dragon hovered, confused.

“Go! Save the others,” Doom Maiden shouted.

Basher, Sparks, and I scrambled down into the cavern. We collected three more stiffs, and, huffing, began the long climb back up. With a crack and a shudder, the passageway behind us collapsed.

“Holy shit!” I yelled. “That was close.”

“Even if we had all day, we couldn’t dig this out,” Basher said, panting. “This is the last we can save.” We would have to mourn the others later.

When we reached the battlefield on the peak, Bloodaxe was normal size again. He had taken cover with Doom Maiden to harry the dragons with missile attacks—her with her bow and him with a crossbow which shot orbs that expanded into meter-wide fireballs. They sheltered behind a pile of crushed rock a few meters from the anomaly. The dragons were making sweeping passes through the sky, laying down breath weapon attacks. Maelstrom spat ice shards as wide as my arm, but the wind dispersed Karnifex’s poison breath before it could have an effect. It seemed he was a better fighter at close distances. Our plan to make dragon fight dragon, while not exactly successful, had helped draw the wyrm from the safety of its lair.

“Everybody through the anomaly!” I ordered. Sparks guided the disk up to the edge. Basher followed with a stiff under each arm. Doom Maiden and Bloodaxe let loose one final explosive volley of attacks, then ran through.

I stood watch. I couldn’t leave—not yet. I had to know.

“What is the Gift?” I called out, holding my hand close to the exit’s flickering surface. “Tell me or I’ll break the connection entirely and we’ll be stranded here forever. No more dragon-botherers bringing you gifts ever again. Just the two of you together, forever. And, uh, me . . . for however long it takes you to eat me.”

That stopped them. They hovered in mid-air, exchanging enormous-eyed glances.

“It is as I said. It does possess the Gift,” Maelstrom said.

“NOT YET A MASTER. WE CAN DEFEAT IT!” Karnifex hissed. “YOU WILL BE MY MOST PRIZED POSSESSION.” The dragon lunged toward me again.

“Screw it.” I touched the anomaly, and burned out of existence—

—and was suddenly back in the park in Braxis City.

At first I thought I was still atop Dread Peak because the ground still trembled, and the night sky was bright with swirling lights. The anomaly throbbed like a heart.

“Something’s wrong,” Sparks shouted. “I think they’re trying to follow through!”

Frantic, I reached into the anomaly with my “gift.” Rather than bunching up like I had planned, I stretched, stretched harder than I had before.

Tiny holes began to open in the air around me, little windows to other places. Dungeonspaces, originspace pockets, and there, in the distance, smoke and flames . . . terror crept up my spine like a spider. Wind roared all around us, rushing into some of the tiny anomalies that had formed. I knew I only had seconds to pull things back together or something catastrophic would happen. In my hurry, I knew I had endangered all of us in Braxis City.

I did my best to force the gaps closed one at a time with one part of my mind while the other pushed back against the dragons. But they were too much, too strong. I was losing.

“I can’t do this,” I whispered. Just then, a hand on my shoulder. Green and firm and kind.

“You can do it, Ivan.”

I pulled with all my focus one last time at the anomaly’s fabric. I felt something snap.

A concussive blast sent me tumbling, and the world spun end over end. I collided with something unyielding and the world went dark.

• • • •

When I opened my eyes, I half-expected to see myself back in Karnifex’s lair, trapped in a cage for his amusement. Instead, I was in my own bed. A figure sat at the foot of the bed in the shadows. Somewhere in the distance, I heard laughing voices.

“Hey dude,” Bloodaxe said softly. “Welcome back.”

“Is everybody okay? Basher . . . was with me when the anomaly blew up.”

“Yeah, she’s fine. That girl is tough as wyvernhide, and your body sheltered her from the worst of it. You took a nasty bump on the head, but the sympaths say you’re going to be okay. They got everybody thawed out, too. There’s gonna be some really happy families in Braxis City tonight.”

“Well . . . that’s good. How long have I been out?”

“Couple of hours. Doom and I called in some favors to get you patched up quickly.”

“How’s Dom?”

“That runt? He won’t be okay until he knows you’re up and about. He’s in your living room pacing a hole in the carpet.”

I put my hand to my head and felt the bandage wrapped around my temples. There was a dull throb pretty much everywhere. I felt drained of every drop of energy I had.

Bloodaxe cleared his throat. “Just wanted to say . . . well, damn it! You shoulda listened to me.”

“I know.”

A long pause. “I’m glad you didn’t. I’m glad you are who you are, Ivan. Thanks, bro.”

“Thank you for having our backs,” I rasped. “We saved more of them because of you.”

He shrugged. I thought maybe I saw tears, but that couldn’t have been. A genuine d-space hero like Bloodaxe, crying?

He bellowed, “Hey, everybody! He’s awake!” Excited voices answered from the living room, and our entire team, including Sparks, and even a few new faces from Karnifex’s collection shuffled into my tiny room. Mom stood in the back, dabbing with one of her Mom tissues at the corner of her eyes.

“How are you feeling?” Basher asked.

“We should ask him to solve a complex math problem to make sure he doesn’t have brain damage,” Sparks said.

“Quick, what’s thirty seven times five hundred and thirteen?” Dom asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“He’s okay,” Dom said assuredly. “He wasn’t that good at math before he took a blow to the head.”

I ignored the wisecrack. “Did somebody deliver the Phylactery to Briggsby?”

Basher nodded. “I dropped it off an hour ago.” She passed me an envelope. “These papers will get you in to see whoever came out of the Black Hole.” As I reached for them, she pulled them back.

“The only reason I’m giving these to you now is because time’s running out. You still need to rest, but after.” She hesitated. “Briggsby did tell me one thing. I’m sorry, but the person who escaped isn’t your brother.”

It took me a minute to absorb that information. I wasn’t sure if that was the blow I’d taken or just shock or relief or something else I didn’t have the words for. “That’s okay,” I said. “Whoever it is, maybe they’ll know something. How much time do I have before the transfer?”

“Two hours,” Basher said. “I was going to go if you didn’t wake up in time.”

“I called a wind-up cab for you,” Mom said.

Mom! I felt like an ass—we’d been talking about Rash right there in front of her. From her tears, I could see she knew everything now. No more secrets between us. It scared me, a little. At least I could give back that stupid Balrog’s Burgers uniform, though.

“We’ll talk after,” I said, to her especially, but to everyone else, too. In response, nods all around, and gestures to hurry.

Dom helped me down the stairs to the front entrance of the building. My knees didn’t want to cooperate on their own.

“You know,” he said, “I had a lot of time to think while I was frozen. I was scared about a lot of things, but there was one thing that never really worried me.”

“What’s that?”

“I always knew you would come back. Somehow, some way, you would figure out a way to rescue me.”

“I wish I’d had your confidence,” I said.

Dom rolled his eyes. “It’s time you have some confidence in yourself, buddy. You might not be the biggest hero who ever was, but you’re my hero and my friend. I’m sorry I caused so much trouble. I promise I’ll listen better in the future. You’re the best leader this team could have.”

I was afraid to say anything, afraid that I might cry, and I didn’t have the energy for it. I hadn’t expected how much Dom’s words would mean to me. I’d been so focused on everything that had happened over the past few days that I hadn’t really let myself feel anything beyond anxiety and fear.

The taxi blew its horn outside.

“One more thing before you go,” Dom said. “What do you think of Dragon Matchmakers, Inc.?”

“For what?”

“Our team name?”

“Absolutely not!”

“Okay. Go have your clandestine meeting. I’ll keep brainstorming.”

• • • •

The envelope from Briggsby contained very official-looking paperwork drawn up by some very high-up MAC officials. I thought I’d have to sneak in some kind of back entrance, but the instructions sent me right through the main door.

A guard was assigned as my guide, and he, along with my papers, got me through six different layers of armed security, locked gates, and what looked like heavily trapped passageways.

Finally, we reached a metal door at the end of a long corridor, flanked on either side by two more guards. They did not look pleased to see us.

“Ten minutes,” my guard said. She unlocked the door and shoved me inside.

The light was dim. I could only just make out the disheveled figure huddled in the corner opposite me.

“I’ve already told you everything I know,” a woman’s voice whispered from within a tangle of long black hair.

I recognized it—but just barely. She had been one of my brother’s teammates. Poison! She was one of the best escapists ever. It made sense that she had been the one to break out of the Black Hole. She and my brother had even dated for about six weeks before he moved on to some d-space fan girl.

“Poison? Is that you?”

“Huh?” She looked up at me. Her eyes looked wrong. “You’re just a kid.”

“What happened to you?”

She began to tremble, and then to wail. I didn’t know what to do. I reached out to put my hand on her arm, but she scrambled away. “Don’t!” Her wailing turned into sobs, then sniffles. I was getting impatient. The guard said I only had ten minutes, and I’d already used up at least five of them waiting for her to pull herself together.

“My name is Ivan. Rash was my brother. Remember? Please, what happened to him?”

Without warning, she lunged at me. I took a step back, but she grabbed my collar and drew me close. Her fingers were cracked and bloody.

Oh.” She let go, and slumped exhausted against the cell wall. “I do remember you! You were that fat little bastard that he always treated like shit. I felt so sorry for you back then. We might have even broken up because of how he treated you. I can’t remember anymore. Your brother was such a jerk, but I had no godsdamned idea what kind of monster he was.”

The guards muttered out in the hall, probably trying to decide if they should intervene to help me. “I’m okay!” I said over my shoulder. “Poison, what happened to Alpha Response?”

“Captured. Tortured. Somehow, they knew one of us had the power, but not which one. We had no idea what they were talking about, not that it mattered. Not that it stopped them. They broke him eventually. He told them everything. About his experiments. His abilities.”

Who was they? But more importantly: “What do you mean, experiments?”

“About dungeonspace. Your brother had a secret talent that he never shared with any of us. Not even me! They wanted that. Faced with them tearing him open for it, and . . .” she laughed bitterly.

“And what?”

She let me go and scrambled back into her corner. “He flipped. Just like that, your brother changed sides. Now he rides at the head of their armies. They’ve conquered a hundred shards thanks to him. Maybe it was coercion at first, but now? I’ve seen it on his face when they ride back in, all full of conquest and victory. He loves it. He’s one of them now.”

She began to scream again, words interspersed with raw animal sounds. I struggled to get away, but her hands grasped me even tighter. “They’re coming! Oh gods, they’re coming for you all! You’ve never seen an army like theirs. This city will burn. We all will burn!”

The guards burst through the cell door then—one grabbed me by the collar and dragged me into the hall, while two others held down Poison and administered some kind of drug. She went limp and slumped to the floor.

“Ivan . . .” she muttered. “He’s found the way back. Black Hole was unstable, but I had to get out. Had to warn—”

“I don’t understand—”

“Ivan! Warn everyone! Your brother is coming home and he’s bringing the Legions of Orocutus with him!”

• • • •

When I made the decision to take up an after-school job closing trans-dimensional portals to pocket-worlds full of dangerous monsters and traps, I thought that the worst that would happen would be that I’d get some cool scars and put some lootbucks in my pocket. In my wildest fantasies, I dreamed I would find Rash and rescue him from whatever hellish dungeonspace trap that had him in its clutches. That I’d make our family whole again.

I never imagined that I would have to save the world from him.

Jeremiah Tolbert

Jeremiah Tolbert has published fiction in Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, Interzone, Asimov’s, and Shimmer, as well as in the anthologies The Way of the Wizard, Seeds of Change, Federations, and Polyphony 4. He’s also been featured several times on the Escape Pod and PodCastle podcasts. In addition to being a writer, he is a web designer, photographer, and graphic artist. He lives in Kansas, with his wife and son.